Saturday, June 1, 2013
Though I was born on Friday the 13th on the 13th floor of the hospital, I’m mostly lucky. I grew up loved, well taken care of, and well-educated. I started out in the South and landed in Seattle. Ann and I married in a time and place where the state recognizes our marriage.
I’ve survived two brain tumors and continue to live a full life. Sixteen years ago, Ann and I bought a home in a neighborhood we love, though we knew little about it when we made our down payment. My dad started hassling me about investing when I was twelve, so I started saving for retirement early, lucky now that, after my tumors, I’m unemployed. I walked across the steel girders of an unfinished bridge in Michoacan during a lightening storm. I was t-boned in a car accident that might have killed me, but instead I could walk away (once the nice fireman cut me out of my car.)
Last night, Ann and I went with some friends to a new documentary film, Beauty in Truth, about Alice Walker, the amazing writer of The Color Purple. We had great seats—though the film at the Seattle International Film Festival was a sell-out—because the staff intended to save our seats for someone else, but they forgot, and three of us have disabilities so the usher gave up on trying to make us move. And then…AND THEN…the woman introducing the film introduced two special guests for this opening: the film’s director, Pratibha Parmar, and Alice Walker. Alice Walker!
Ann and I wouldn’t have even known about the film except that our friend Ellen invited us and others. We didn’t know that Alice Walker was going to be there. See what I mean? Lucky. (That we saw this film and that Ellen is our friend.)
Before the film, several of us went out for dinner, and I shared with these friends that I had that day discovered that I have a file at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. In that file was confirmation of last summer’s pre-requisite course (“Biology for Social Workers”) that said I’d passed (whew!), an invitation to an event that I wouldn’t have attended anyway in March, two graded papers from a professor I liked a lot from winter quarter, and some papers that I actually need for now. Lucky I didn’t need any of that before, and lucky that I’ve found it now.
I read through the extensive comments from my professor. My favorite comment was his last: “You are cool.” A self-avowed geek, I have never been told this by a professor before. In fact, I think my childhood friend Heather is the only other person who has said this to me before.
At dinner my friends and I discussed what “cool” means (only geeks would turn this into a semantic exploration), and we determined that no one at the table was cool. Rose posited that no one over the age of 25 is cool. (Sorry, Dad.)
And then we went to see Beauty in Truth, and Alice Walker in the flesh.
Alice Walker’s had an amazing life, in some ways lucky and in some ways hard. She was the baby in a family of eight children, and her parents were sharecroppers. Born in 1944 (the same year as Ann), she grew up as a poor African American girl in Eatonton, Georgia where the landowner wanted her parents to send their children to the fields, but Walker’s mother sent them to school instead. Lucky Alice.
Walker did well in school and was awarded a scholarship to Spelman College, where her freshman history professor was Howard Zinn, the progressive author of The People’s History of the United States, a man who wisely said, “Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide, and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.” So one of her first college teachers was a superstar in his own right. Lucky Alice.
She got involved in the Civil Rights movement, transferred to Sarah Lawrence, spent her junior year studying in Africa, and after graduation registered voters in Georgia and worked for Head Start in Alabama, where she met her husband Mel, a white Jewish guy. They married, and she gave birth to their child, Rebecca. Lucky Alice.
Some may think that her luck ran out when she married the white Jewish guy, and others may think that his luck ran out. Some might think that her luck ran out when they divorced, but she doesn’t see things this way.
She’s had a life-time of lovers—male and female (including the singer Tracy Chapman)—and continued a writing career in which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She has also continued throughout her life to work for justice where she sees injustice. Name almost any social justice movement in her lifetime, and she was there. (She’s just returned from Gaza.)
In all of this, she sees herself as lucky: a childhood in a shack where she focused on the flowers in the yard; a rich education in classrooms and in the streets; a life full of deep love in which she pursues a curiosity of the many ways that love can be lived; tremendous success in her writing; a voice of justice that wields social power.
She’s not been altogether lucky, though. When as a child she and her brother were playing cowboys and Indians, he shot her in the eye with his toy gun, and her right eye went blind. (That explains why this African-American woman has one blue eye). Later in her life, the greatest critics of her Pulitzer-prize winning novel were Black men and women who were offended by her portrayals of Black men and Black families. The stress of their rejection was hard for her.
Now, she does not have contact with her grown daughter Rebecca, so she does not know her grandson, and the estrangement of daughter and grandson clearly pains her. Angry about a childhood with a mother who she says raised her writing more carefully than she raised her child, Rebecca is also a writer and a feminist and a bisexual (though Alice Walker doesn’t attach labels to herself, so she wouldn’t call herself a bisexual.)
Alice Walker lives life on her own terms. In the film and in her responses to questions last night, she seemed confident about the controversial stances she’s taken throughout her life. She seemed tough and unapologetic. She seemed at peace when she talked about hard times.
Now I know who is cool. Alice Walker is cool.